Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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All the News

May 15, 2009

Newspapers across the country are in trouble, but you know what? Once I get over the shock of imagining life without newspapers, my first thought is "You brought it on your goddamn selves."

I started reading the news section of the daily paper at a fairly young age, about nine, and continued the practice till I was in my early thirties. Disillusion had set in more than a decade earlier, when as a young antiwar activist I several times had the experience of participating in an event and then reading the Washington Post story about it the next day. Mind you, I didn't expect the reporters to see the same things I saw, or evaluate them in similar ways, but all too often I barely recognized the event in the coverage of it. I had plenty of firsthand experience to use as a touchstone; the newspaper story wouldn't shape my impression of the event. What about the hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing to measure the story against?

More important, what about all the stories for which I had no other source of knowledge? Come to think of it, disillusion had started to fester by the time I got to high school: being a teenage Arabist, I turned to the Middle Eastern news first, and most of the time it seemed that I knew more about Middle Eastern history than the reporters did.

When the Washington Star died, ca. 1983, I didn't go back to the Washington Post, which I'd given up on a couple of years before. In 1985 I moved to Martha's Vineyard, which the Boston papers covered about as well as the Washington papers covered the D.C. I lived in, which is to say "not very." By 1991, when the Gulf War rolled around and I tried to keep up with "the news," I was so far out of the newspaper habit that I couldn't get more than a few paragraphs into a story before I started fuming: "You jerk, you don't even know what questions to ask, much less how to evaluate the answers." During the violent disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, an area of the world about which I knew almost nothing, I tried to figure out what was going on from the newspaper stories. They were like so many pieces from half a dozen different puzzles: I couldn't fit them into a coherent picture.

By then I was working for the Martha's Vineyard Times, first as proofreader, theater reviewer, and stringer for the features section, then as Calendar/Community (aka features) editor. Otto von Bismarck is reported to have said that laws and sausage are two things you don't want to see being made. To these I add "the news." No one who's ever worked for a newspaper (or done any kind of writing or editing, for that matter) should be able to claim "objectivity" with a straight face, but some of them do. At the same time -- the news biz is a total blast. Even on a small-town weekly it's so easy to think you're in the middle of everything, you're in the know, and civilization would collapse into chest-thumping ignorance if the paper didn't come out on time. (In Arabic it's the jahiliyya, the darkness in which the world lived before the Prophet arrived with the word of Allah.)

Since 2004 -- more precisely, since the over-the-top caterwauling over GWBush's re-election made me suspect that I was missing something important: why were otherwise sensible people so distressed that John Kerry lost? -- I've been skimming mainstream newspaper headlines in my Outlook Express inbox and reading commentary on AlterNet. Newspapers are something I see mostly in waiting rooms and coffeeshops.

This morning, however, Travvy and I were heading home from a variation in our regular a.m. route. A row of mailboxes stands at the place where we usually cross Old County Road. Nearly every morning there's a Boston Globe lying on the ground. A few days ago Trav and I were crossing the road, having looked both ways and waited till no cars were in sight, when Trav started pulling in the opposite direction. Startled, I hauled him the rest of the way across Old County Road, then looked back: a guy was picking up the newspaper. This morning the same guy was picking up the newspaper, but this time Trav and I were on the same side of the road. Trav wanted to meet the guy, and he seemed friendly, so I let him. Dogs and newspapers have a history, I said. If newspapers are all on the Internet, dogs will have nothing to bring to the front door, or charge around the yard with, or shred to bits in the flowerbed. (Just now it occurred to me that you can't paper-train a puppy with the online edition of the New York Times.)

The guy said he hoped it never came to that; he couldn't imagine starting the day without a newspaper to read.

In my city girl days, I remembered, it was a big deal when I could finally manage to turn the pages of a newspaper while strap-hanging on the subway or the bus, and without flapping the pages in another commuter's face.

The guy and I introduced ourselves -- his name is Jay -- wished each other a good day, and headed off in our separate directions.

As Travvy and I headed homeward, I thought about managing the paper -- the Boston Globe in the morning and, often, the Christian Science Monitor in the afternoon -- on the MTA during the years I commuted to and from high school. I envied the commuters, usually men in overcoats and fedoras, who managed to turn the pages with nary a rustle. We're not talking tabloids either; these were full-size broadsheets, like the Globe and the old Herald and the New York Times. When I could finally do it myself, I felt like a grown-up.

I thought about the dexterity involved in manipulating large sheets of newsprint, and the relative ease of hitting keys on a keyboard, clicking a mouse, or rolling a trackball. Of pumping water from a well and carrying the bucket to where you need the water versus turning a faucet and rubbing your hands under it. We can have music by turning on the radio, putting a CD in the slot, or logging on to Pandora; we don't have to play it ourselves, so we don't have to practice practice practice till our fingers and hands and breath will do what they have to do to make music. We consume prepackaged food and prepackaged sports and prepackaged entertainment of all kinds. Much has been made of how sedentary our bodies have become. I wonder about our sedentary brains: without the connections that practice practice practice establishes and strengthens between fingers and brain, what do they look like? Maybe the dirt road washed clean after a storm and pockmocked by raindrops.


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